What the development sector can learn from business (blog 2 of 2)


This blog is the second of a two-part series on cross-sector learning – the first was about what business can learn from the development sector, and in this one I want to highlight two areas where the development sector can learn from business: communications and marketing.

In my experience, tension often develops in a partnership between private sector and development organisations when the private sector partner wants to publicise the partnership. For some reason, this can come as an uncomfortable surprise to the development partner – it’s as if the organisation is ashamed to go public about their dalliance with a company, whilst companies are always keen to flaunt the story. We could excuse the development organisation, saying that it’s modesty, or that it is focused on delivery, but I think their reticence is often about lack of know-how and/or not valuing the benefits of communications. [At this point I should disclose that I spent the first ten years of my career in corporate communications roles and have a slight bias].

Corporate communications professionals are regularly accused of spin and fluff, exaggerating the good news of their employer and massaging the truth in their company’s favour. Indeed, public relations is sometimes used as a dismissive, derogatory term i.e. “Oh, that’s just PR…” But, have you ever thought about how frustrating it is when a company doesn’t communicate? Ever looked for a company website, only to find there isn’t one, or found it’s out-of-date? And what effect does opacity have on your willingness to trust a company? Companies are increasingly expected to be transparent and open about what they’re doing, where they’re doing it and with whom; transparency requirements are even written into many Codes of Corporate Governance. And so, companies are adept at communicating. They usually have teams who work hard on crafting messages and honing the use of multimedia, with the aim of representing the company in public. Good corporate communications can build a company’s reputation; it can also protect a company’s brand value in a crisis. Coming back to the company wanting to publicise its partnership with an NGO: this is normally a positive story that showcases how companies can be a force for good, sharing the company’s activities beyond business-as-usual, and it can highlight opportunities for more partners and partnerships. Why would any organisation not talk about this?!

The second master class that business can give is the art of marketing, to have an impact at scale – where marketing is the “delivery of offerings”. It’s incredible how companies can give us access to telephone networks, crisps, soft drinks and other products almost anywhere in the world…just imagine if the same distribution models could be applied to humanitarian aid, medicines or education. The private sector has perfected the art of marketing. The “marketing mix” is a theory that refers to the ‘7Ps’ to consider when marketing a product or service. I think that many development organisations could also consider the 7Ps for many of their programmes: Product (does it meet customers’ expectations); Price (is it good value for money); Place (accessibility); Promotion (communicating the use/application of the product); People (having the right people distribute the product); Process (how the service is delivered); and, Physical evidence (the tangible benefit of the product/service). Admittedly, companies allocate bigger budgets to the 7Ps than most development organisations do, but as a result they have much wider reach and impact. I think the 7Ps are a useful and interesting lens to apply to development programmes.

Further, if your development organisation’s budget doesn’t stretch to a multi-national company’s marketing budget, then there are a couple of really interesting examples of such organisations piggy-backing on companies’ marketing efforts. Such as Colalife – where essential medicines are packaged and distributed in soft drink crates; food fortification – where micronutrients are integrated into staple foods to address local malnutrition needs; and when logistics companies dedicate their operations to humanitarian relief in the period after a disaster.

To conclude this two-part mini-series on lessons to learn from other sectors, I would say that there is lots we can learn from one another. The development sector leads the way in adopting a systems approach to change and in measuring impact; meanwhile, companies can show us how to communicate and how to distribute products and services at scale. Undoubtedly, I am only scratching the surface with these few examples, but more important than the examples themselves is that we retain the willingness and openness to learn from one another.

For more on a related theme, read my colleague’s blog from October.